Lessons in ministerial effectiveness from overseas

26 May 2011

Experience overseas throws a new light on how current UK practices of hiring and firing our senior politicians have an impact on the effectiveness of government ministers.

The Institute’s report The Challenge of being a Minister highlights two obstacles to effectiveness said to be absent elsewhere. Firstly, the small pool from which ministers are drawn, and secondly the frequency with which they are reshuffled.

Anecdotes of French Presidents hand picking ‘the best brains in the county’ to be ministers tend to be stated with wistful longing, but are then quite often met with dismissal. The differences between the systems, it is said, make any comparison irrelevant. While it is true that Westminster is different, an analysis of the conditions which underpin the differences elsewhere provides some valuable lessons for the UK.

Breaking the monopoly

At a recent event to launch our report, Lord Heseltine lamented the ‘monopoly’ parliamentarians hold on ministerial office – while acknowledging that as things stand, large-scale appointments of outsiders could cause a mutiny.

Bringing in non-parliamentarian ministers is common in:

  • Germany (where they account for an average of 23%)
  • France (25%+)
  • The Netherlands (33%)
  • Sweden (42%).

These four states have different constitutional structures that make it easier to recruit outsiders as ministers. However, the difference is more than constitutional. Their ‘outsider’ ministers are still on the whole senior party political figures – but they have been in local, mayoral, regional or party positions.

In these countries, the outsider route to ministerial office is well trodden and accepted. Aspiring political figures do not have to pursue a national parliamentary role to achieve ministerial office. In the UK the vast majority of ministers will, and should always be, parliamentarians; but a cultural shift- with new mayoral positions and devolved administrations- may allow a handful to be drawn from the wider pool of political talent.

Over shuffling the deck

Our report finds that over-frequent cabinet reshuffles damage ministerial effectiveness. Other countries use them much less often – Germany has had just six midterm reshuffles since 1949.

The results on tenure are unsurprising. Lord Sainsbury points out that there have been 15 German economy ministers since 1947, compared to 35 secretaries of state in his old equivalent department (YouTube, 1m:57s). This is not due to constitutional differences, but as Hertie School of Governance’s Jobst Fiedler has explained to us it is again a question of culture and public expectations (YouTube, 10m:16s). According to Professor Fiedler, reshuffles in Germany are less frequent due to two main factors.

  • Firstly, there is a strong public expectation that ministers will have a high level of understanding of their assigned policy area.
  • Secondly, coalition arrangements mean the Chancellor is not in a position to constantly move ministers around.

There is a “public sense of appropriateness”, that you cannot do reshuffle “just for the sake of it”, creating strong incentives for a careful allocation of ministers to appropriate posts first time around.

Finding and assigning ministers with knowledge of the policy area are also key to recruitment in Sweden, where half are policy ‘experts’ before assuming some offices. France meanwhile, has had a person with a medical background as a health minister for about nine of the last 10 years.

UK civil servants we interviewed and participants at our launch event strongly believed that an interest in their remit is key to a minister being successful when in post. Yet as Lord Heseltine pointed out, the Prime Minister is under public pressure to announce her/his cabinet within 24 hours of having fought and won an arduous and all consuming election battle. She or he is allowed very little time to carefully consider allocating ministers based on skills and interests – something our report recommends.

Two lessons from overseas

The UK can learn much from international experience, despite the differing characteristics of other political systems. It could have a stronger pool of ministerial candidates by strengthening representative and political roles outside of Westminster, and getting used to recruiting a handful of skilled and experienced non-parliamentarians. And it could have more effective ministers and a reduced need to reshuffle by allowing and encouraging a more deliberative process of allocating ministers.

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Comments (3)

  1. Jill Rutter on 26 May 2011 at 10:09 am

    Maybe the first thing that should go is the assumption that it makes sense to make Cabinets while exhausted (though this only applies to post-election Cabinets – not more general reshuffles). The Canadians in a broadly similar system take a week; the Spaniards in a v similar system take a week. Maybe we should (as Cath Haddon and Peter Riddell have pointed out before) let the PM have a good night or two’s sleep before inflicting Ministers in the wrong jobs on us all.

  2. Liz Carolan on 26 May 2011 at 2:22 pm

    I could not agree more. If you look at the scale of the job involved in selecting and allocating ministers, the speed at which it is done becomes even more startling. As we say in the report, there are approx. 120 individual roles to distribute – Canada has just 64 ministerial roles in total.

    Not only this, but the process involves the creation of 19 ministerial teams- time is needed for an assessment of the needs of those teams in terms of the backgrounds, skills and interests required for success.

  3. David Watson on 5 June 2011 at 10:32 pm

    It strikes me that the survivability of a minister in Britain suggests a closer adherence to the model of government Hood has as ‘avoidance of disaster’ than elsewhere, with disaster defined in a more public opinion than public good sense.

    If a minister was identified as an ‘expert’ would that allow them to better weather scandal and reduce pressure for reshuffles?

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